Pope John Paul II succumbs to illness

Pope John Paul II, whose indomitable will and uncompromising belief in human dignity helped bring down communism in Eastern Europe and reshaped Christianity’s relationship to Judaism, was indisputably the most influential pope of the 20th century. He died Saturday in his Vatican apartment at 84.

The first non-Italian elected pope in 456 years, John Paul energized the papacy through much of his reign, traveling as evangelist and champion of religious freedom even as he imposed a rigorous moral discipline and more centralized authority on his sometimes rebellious 1 billion-member church.

In his 26-year papacy, John Paul made 104 trips outside Italy to 129 nations, going as a pastor to countries including Brazil, where Catholics are the majority, and Japan, where they are a minority.

He preached along the equator and inside the Arctic Circle. He preached on sere Andean mountaintops and on lush tropical islands, in famous European cathedrals and in bullet-pocked African country churches. And he preached amid the wreckage of fratricidal wars in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, and Beirut, Lebanon.

A witness to the Holocaust as a young man, John Paul led the Roman Catholic Church on a pilgrimage of repentance and reconciliation with Jews, culminating in the establishment of diplomatic relations with the state of Israel.

In his final years, he made a crowning pilgrimage to the Holy Land and became the first Roman Catholic leader in nearly 1,300 years to visit Greece, trying to bridge the centuries-old theological divide with Eastern Orthodoxy.

By 2003, John Paul’s journeys had been scaled back, but he continued to press on. His final trip was in August 2004, returning to France to visit the miracle shrine of Lourdes. It was a poignant backdrop for the frail and ailing pontiff. Surrounded by other sufferers, many seeking miracle cures, he struggled to read his sermon and was heard to whisper to an aide in Polish, “Help me.” After a drink of water, he said softly, “I must finish.” And finish the speech he did.

He apologized to Jews, females, Orthodox Christians and others for his church’s failings and sins against them throughout history. He apologized to Muslims for the Crusades, which ravaged the Holy Land from the 11th through the 13th centuries.

For the impoverished masses in the nations of Asia, Africa and Latin America that he so assiduously visited, John Paul was often a revolutionary icon demanding social justice: jobs, respect for human dignity, a decent standard of living, education and healthcare.

But despite his political activism in his native Poland, John Paul discouraged his priests and bishops from aligning the church with any political ideology, particularly Marxism.

In the wealthy First World, particularly in Europe and North America, John Paul was often a singer more prized for the sound of his voice than the content of his song. His uncompromising positions on issues of morality, particularly those involving sex and gender, were a constant irritant to Catholic liberals, even as they applauded his commitment to social justice and his developing and, finally, uncompromising opposition to capital punishment.

He said no to women in the priesthood, no to married priests, no to sexual intimacy outside a traditional marriage. He saw no reason to relax church teachings on homosexuality, gay marriage, divorce, contraception, abortion and euthanasia.

And, although initially hesitant to become involved in the sexual abuse scandal that shook the church, he ultimately took a forceful position on ridding the priesthood of sexual abusers.

“He’ll be hailed as a great pope because of the length of his term, the extent of his travels, the depth of his knowledge,” Father Andrew Greeley, an author and commentator on the church, told the Los Angeles Times in an interview.

In his final years, people became accustomed to the sight of the pope stooped by age and walking with a cane. His face by then only hinted at his once vigorous countenance. His words were slurred. His hand trembled from Parkinson’s disease. As the disease progressed toward the end of his life, the pontiff could no longer walk, even with the cane. Papal aides bore John Paul wherever he went.

But for all his weighty pronouncements, closely reasoned encyclicals and undoubted effect on church and state, he will be remembered by most people for the charisma and the indelible images he left behind while in his prime: kneeling to kiss the ground on his arrival in countries around the world; clasping the corrugated hands of an aging Mother Teresa of Calcutta, India, shortly before she died in 1997; sitting in a jail cell talking to his would-be assassin.

Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times-Washington Post news service.